“They say the definition of madness is doing the same thing and expecting a different result,” Howlin’ Pelle Almqvist paraphrases Albert Einstein in “Try It Again,” one of several new songs that confront a crisis for a band that has boasted “The Hives Are Law, You Are Crime.” For despite their cartoony charisma, riffs that evoke and transcend the garage-band boogie they repopularized, and performance skills as big as their ambition, the Hives’ last album, 2004’s Tyrannosaurus Hives, failed to outsell 2000’s Veni Vidi Vicious. It had the sandblasted production, FX-intensive videos, and big-bucks hype of a blockbuster, but lacked VVV?’s “Hate to Say I Told You So” and “Main Offender” — songs strong enough to break through radio’s stonewall against rock that actually rocks.
Overseen by Modest Mouse producer Dennis Herring and an army of engineers, The Black and White Album makes Tyrannosaurus sound small. Guitars and drums charge out of the speakers like robot buffalo stampeding off a cliff, then change shape every few bars, bouncing back and forth and left and right like an ear-shredding action movie. Opening single “Tick Tick Boom” one-ups the gunfire that hip-hop employs as percussion by punctuating the end of every chorus with a detonation. The equally explosive and famously tight fivesome beat and throb and strum and scream as if they’ve been surgically joined to share the same reflexes. Their chords still stink of garage-band gasoline and sweat, but the vivid precision of their attack is pure techno.
The songs are just as exacting. Every lyric deals with rock topics deemed unfashionable since grunge first appeared: rising above mediocrity, triumphing over adversity and conformity, and making things happen. Out of context, “You Dress Up for Armageddon” seems antiliberal. “There is a hole in your heart and it’s bleeding,” Almqvist sings of an attention-grabbing doomsayer. But it’s not his politics Almqvist is mocking; it’s his preference for talk over action. Expanding the band’s black-and-white color scheme to a moral outlook, the disc divides mankind into two opposing sides: those who discuss and those who do. The Hives aim to join the latter camp and back up each lyrical assertion with a hardworking hook. Rather than argue, they fuck, on the self-descriptive “Giddy Up!”
The two tracks produced and cowritten by Pharrell Williams — the ’60s soul raver “Well All Right!” and the Queen/Blondie dance party “T.H.E.H.I.V.E.S.” — aren’t even the catchiest. Among many contenders, “Square One Here I Come” satirizes losers while confronting the band’s own failure and hammering like the Stooges covering Devo. “You get what’s given to you,” Almqvist concludes — i.e., nothing. The Hives want it all, so they’ve risked everything on an album that audibly fights to earn it.